Among the best examples we have of community economics at work can be found in the cooperative movement. This movement, at its best, fosters self-reliance and member participation at the grassroots. It can also provide the connections both to other members and to producers that allow members to gain clout in areas that had previously been closed to them.
Among the most successful of such cooperatives is the Seikatsu Club, which was started nearly 30 years ago by a Japanese housewife.
What makes this example remarkable is its growth, not only in size – which now tops 200,000 member-households – but its growth in the involvement and empowerment of its members.
This story is based in part on interviews with two Seikatsu Club members, translated by our summer intern, Joseph Willemssen.
Like millions of other married Japanese women, Iwaki Kayoru used to work at home and do some volunteer work on the side. It was the late 1970s, and her work helping severely handicapped children had gotten Kayoru thinking about the health effects of food preservatives. But beyond that, she didn’t give much thought to such things as grassroots political organizing, the price of her groceries, or Japan’s environmental problems.
Then, a friend told her about the Seikatsu Club, a consumer-goods cooperative, which had, at the time, about 60,000 member households.
"I joined Seikatsu and, as a result of all the studying and learning I did, my consciousness was raised," says Kayoru, now 53 and living in Kamakura. "If I were still a plain housewife, there’s no way I would have been able to experience all that I have."
With Seikatsu as a classroom, Kayoru learned what the rest of the co-op’s members also were discovering: that by working together and by valuing quality over profits, housewives can have a tremendous effect on the food and other household goods they purchase. Beyond that, they found they could assure that their purchases were produced and distributed in safe, environmentally friendly ways. When they reached the limits of what could be accomplished within the cooperative sphere, they discovered they could muster political clout and influence government policy in a country where for centuries men have had the power.
"Acquaintances of mine, who had spent their time relaxing at home drinking tea, are now politically active," Kayoru says. "People have made dramatic changes in their lives."
Now, 15 years after Kayoru joined Seikatsu, the co-op has more than 218,000 member households in 12 Japanese prefectures, 700 full-time staffers, and its own line of 60 products. With each member contributing 1,000 yen (about $9) a month, the co-op has $120 million in investments, the fourth-largest total of any co-op in Japan. Last year, Seikatsu did 71 billion yen in retail sales – about $650 million.
Seikatsu – literally, "life and living of ordinary people" – is part of Japan’s exploding consumer co-op movement.
From all appearances, Seikatsu has been able to maintain the spirit out of which it was created in 1965, when a housewife, concerned about the rising price of food, organized 200 other women to buy 300 bottles of milk. In one respect, in fact, Seikatsu is even more decentralized than when that first purchase was made: today, bulk purchases are made by hans – groups of 6 to 13 families that place orders for food and other products once a month. Today, Seikatsu has over 26,000 hans.
Because hans place orders well in advance of when member families actually will need the goods, freshness and a timely delivery are assured, and families and producers are better able to plan.
The co-op also has been able to maintain a high level of member involvement: members decide what items are purchased and produced, inspect for quality, and elect representatives to the various levels of Seikatsu’s internal "government."
Members also work side-by-side with producers. "It’s epochal that in this world of mass-market economics, we can now know who grew our food and where and how it was processed," says Watanabe Mitsuko, 43, a Seikatsu member since 1974.
"I’ve toured farms and factories, and helped with weeding and harvesting," says Mitsuko. "I’ve gotten to know the production methods and the producers’ way of thinking. In the process I can explain my thinking to them. It’s a relationship of mutual reliance."
The result, Mitsuko says, is that "instead of just hearing demands for reasonable prices and stable supplies, the producer now hears our requests for high-quality, safe food."
These lines of communication also have enabled Seikatsu organizers to eliminate middlepeople; goods are delivered by co-op staffers directly from the producer to the hans, which helps to hold down costs, ensure product freshness and foster unity.
The operation is further simplified by the co-op’s "one product/one variety" policy of selling, for example, only one type of soy sauce in one-liter glass bottles. Seikatsu handles 400 different products, of which 60 percent are staple food products, whereas more than 300,000 products are available on the open market.
The co-op supports small, local farms by guaranteeing them a certain amount of business if they avoid using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. When it can’t find products that meet its standards, the club starts its own farm or processing facility.
"It takes time and it’s not easy," says Mitsuko, who has held several management positions within the co-op. "But we’ve had an opportunity to learn self-management and self-reliance."
The co-op’s emphasis on member-empowerment has given rise to about 150 worker-run business collectives made up of more than 3,000 members, again, mainly married women. Kayoru runs one of them, a "welfare club co-op" that delivers food to the elderly.
"In a big company you are just a cog in the machine," she says. "But in a workers’ collective, one can express one’s thoughts and do things one likes much more easily. Further, men already have the advantage in the world of big firms. But in a collective, women are in the mainstream. I find that much more interesting!"
Other spin-off enterprises include a medical-insurance collective, a mental-health service, and a volunteer-labor pool to help the needy.
Lately, women have begun to make gains within the Seikatsu organization.
"Initially, men held most of the executive and administrative positions, and we went along with that tradition," Mitsuko says. "But women are now taking on these positions."
According to Mitsuko, the co-op’s philosophy and structure have taken on feminine characteristics, which is not surprising when you consider that 95 percent of the members are women.
"The special qualities of women – in particular their softness, their pragmatism, their regard for life and proper lifestyle, their personal connections with the community – have made a large contribution to the growth and success of Seikatsu," she says.
POLITICS FROM THE KITCHEN
In this setting, the members’ broader environmental, societal, and other concerns can be heard up the organizational ladder. Seikatsu has a strict policy against producing or selling any artificially seasoned foods, clothing with fluorescents, and synthetic detergents.
This democratic, personal-involvement philosophy has had ripple effects throughout the co-op’s membership. With hans getting together at least once a month to plan their food orders, the infrastructure is in place to address issues beyond the immediate scope of the cooperative.
There was the "soap movement" of 1974, launched when parents discovered skin irritation on their young children and cracks in their own skin. The ubiquitous synthetic soap that caused the problems also apparently led to the disappearance of the shirauo fish from at least one river.
So Mitsuko, along with two-thirds of the co-op’s members, switched to natural soap and started a national petition drive urging local and regional governments to ban synthetic soaps. Seikatsu now makes its own soap powder from used cooking oil in its own production plant, and the shirauo has made a comeback.
"Our water, our soil, our air – if we do not protect our ecosystem, we cannot assure safe living," Mitsuko says. "I did not have this understanding before entering Seikatsu. Being in Seikatsu has really changed my way of thinking."
Seikatsu changed Mitsuko so much, in fact, that she ran for public office, winning a seat in the Kanagawa prefectural assembly in 1991. All told, about 75 co-op members have been elected under the "Political Reform from the Kitchen" platform. Co-op members also are networking with grassroots organizations in other countries, and they sent representatives to the Earth Summit and The Other Economic Summit.
The co-op’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed outside of the country. In 1989, Seikatsu won the Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. During a ceremony held that year in Stockholm, award founder Jakob von Uexkull said of the co-op:
"Alternative economics, in order to have an impact, cannot just withdraw from society but must aim to create a new mainstream. We honor Seikatsu as a project which has successfully taken up this challenge, proving that it is possible to grow an organization of over 500,000 members without losing the original vision."
It’s a vision, Mitsuko says, that will not easily blur.